Freeman's approach a long time in the making

Freeman's approach a long time in the making

Fred Freeman doesn't get much chance to watch his son take batting practice anymore. Those moments have become more limited through the years for the father of Braves superstar Freddie Freeman, who still lives in California, where he raised Freddie and his older brothers.

So when Fred does get the chance, he watches intently, such as during the Braves' family road trip last month. Cut after cut, Dad drops insightful nuggets about the nature of his son's golf-like uppercut, its mechanical tendencies and the foundation on which it was built.

Freddie Freeman has done everything right-handed his entire life -- except hit. When he first picked up a bat, he did so with his left hand on top, birthing one of today's sweetest swings that may have never been had he gone the orthodox route.

Freeman's RBI single

It was a youthful quirk, but one worth protecting. When Freeman first played T-ball, his dad was certain that coaches, seeing his son throwing right-handed, would attempt to steer him to the according batter's box, an act he told his late wife to protect at all costs ahead of Freddie's first game. A half hour later, before Freeman could take his first swings in organized baseball, Fred, still at work, received a call from Rosemary saying she pulled him off the field.

"Most kids in T-ball don't know what they are, so if they're throwing right-handed, you think they're right-handed, so you turn them around, try to get their hands right and turn them the 'right' way," Fred Freeman told MLB.com. "Half the kids don't know at that age, but Freddie had already been playing with his older brothers. He knew how to play."

Dad laughs when he recounts the story, recalling a crying and confused Freddie in the background. He wasn't trying to build a Major Leaguer, but the cognizance paid off. Freeman has blossomed into a $135 million superstar, and he has remained the one constant to a Braves franchise that has undergone massive turnover in the post-Bobby Cox era.

Freeman's double plates two

Since debuting in 2011, Freeman's wide-smiled presence has been as consistent as his annual All-Star-caliber play. The blips in his career have been few and far between, and even then, they have been short-lived. So when he got off to the worst start of his career in 2016 -- a two-month stretch where he posted a .251/.338/.419 slash line -- Freeman, admittedly a very simplistic player, overhauled his batting-practice routine, conserving more energy and shortening up to ease tension in his swing.

Instead of "see ball, hit ball" in BP, Freeman began lacing liners to shortstop with 50-60 percent effort, an exertion that, when supplemented with in-game adrenaline, allows him stay into the baseball and create more backspin, rather than pull with topspin directly into a defensive shift.

An up-the-middle approach coupled with elite hand speed and the natural lift in his swing keeps Freeman's bat in the zone longer. He also crouches slightly more in-game, which creates more load in his legs and also allows him to dig out low pitches and manipulate his spray, all with a more condensed strike zone.

"My weakness is inside. I try and leave that alone because it's really hard for a pitcher to hit that spot three times," Freeman said. "They're going to usually miss more over the middle, and that's where I try and hit the ball back up through the middle. If you can hit fastballs to left-center and you have that approach going that way and they throw an offspeed [pitch], you're still going to be going through the zone, and that's where you hit the [pitch] going to right field."

The biggest surprise, Freeman said, was the immediate and sustained power surge. Since June 2016, 8.8 percent of his total batted balls have left the yard, the ninth-highest rate in MLB in that span (minimum 500 batted ball events), while 62.1 percent of batted balls have gone for line drives or fly balls, second highest in the Majors. He's also cut his already miniscule popup rate from five percent in '16 to 2.4 percent this year, 15th lowest in MLB.

"He's starting to flatten his swing a little bit more, able to get the pitches that are up in the strike zone, between the belt and the letters," Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said. "Instead of swinging through those pitches, he's able to do something with them on occasion, but more importantly, foul them off and stay alive to where he gives himself another chance. But he's not topspinning balls this year, knock on wood."

The results say the approach has also improved Freeman's timing. His batting average on offspeed pitches since last June is .261, up from .245 over the year and a half prior, dating to when Statcast™ was first introduced. And Freeman is ripping heaters better than ever, with a .478 batting average this year on pitches 95 mph or harder, tops in MLB (minimum 30 at-bats ending on such pitches).

"He lets that ball get really deep," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "That ball travels a long way before he commits to it. So consequently, he has the ability to hit the ball all over the place."

In a way, Freeman's revamped BP approach mirrors one that helped him master hitting as a kid. On the amateur diamonds, with his dad throwing to him, Freeman would rip 48 baseballs out of three buckets each -- one to left field, one to center and the last wherever he wanted, instilling valuable opposite-field muscle memory long before the dawn of the shift. Growing up in Southern California, with baseball weather year-round, Freeman's dad estimates they practiced this drill at least five days a week for the better part of a decade.

Freeman's RBI double

"At one point, I said, 'Let's do it in the cage,' and Freddie said, 'No I like to see where the ball goes,'" Fred Freeman said.

"It was just kind of natural," Freddie said. "Growing up, I never worked on pulling the ball."

The approach has had reverberating effects within the Braves' clubhouse, to veterans and youngsters alike. Freeman preaches his practice with conviction, assuring teammates their simple outs could instead be manifested into hits with what he deems the proper approach.

"He's always getting on me if I pull a pitch in BP," said Braves outfielder Matt Kemp. "He's like, 'It's easy to pull pitches. It's harder to go the other way.' He kind of rubs off on you. He makes you better."

Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.